I had finally made it. I walked through the overpowering and clean terminal of Beijing airport where I was greeted by a serious man who looked over my passport and fortunately all my visa details checked out as they let me enter their communist country. Thirty years earlier, my Dad had visited Hong Kong and took a trip to the Chinese border, that was closed to most outsiders, and glanced over to see the wild undisturbed powerhouse. Three decades later I was now taking my first steps into this once forbidden empire.
I threw on my backpack and made my way to the arrival lounge. I was feeling a bit apprehensive at first walking down the long line of Chinese drivers holding up their signs for newly arrived passengers and I could not see my name anywhere. Before panic had sunk in, I saw mine towards the end of the barrier! It was a delightful sight and I pointed to myself signalling it was for me, the funny thing was that the driver was just as happy to see me as I was to see him.
It was a quiet commute through Beijing’s busy streets as the driver could speak no English and I knew no Mandarin. My initial impression of the city was that of disappointment as we rolled by constant grey buildings and the only vegetation was leafless trees. I thought to myself, have I made the right choice? Of all the Asian countries to pick from, was China really worth it? The driving around us was a bit insane but fortunately the driver kept at a steady speed. Until at a traffic jam he nipped onto the hard shoulder of an overpass and went past all the honking motorists. Later, when we were in central Beijing, he darted into an alleyway that was barely big enough for the car to squeeze through. All of a sudden we stopped outside a building and I pointed to the building and back to myself with some bemusement. He nodded happily in reply and went to get the bag out of the boot.
I strolled into the tiny hotel lobby and was called over by the receptionist. He said loudly in accented English, “PASSPORT”. I handed it over and he checked it against his records. He handed me it back quickly with my room key. I asked “Is this one floor up?”, “Yes” he replied “one floor up, you use stairs”. The room was basic but looked clean enough with a dingy bathroom with a faint yellow glow of light. After the jet lag all I wanted to do was sleep so I sprawled out on the bed. It was rock solid as I was soon to find out was a common theme with all Chinese beds. I hate hard beds. All of a sudden the phone rang and the receptionist was to tell me my room mate was on his was up.
Andy was an easy going and great guy. He ended up telling me about the volunteer work he was just doing in Ghana (I was secretly jealous) until we had to go downstairs and meet the rest of the tour group. There was seven of us all in total. Apart from Andy and me there were two friends called Phil and Ed who were taking a gap year, a couple – Rob and Gina from Surrey who were travelling the world together and lastly Felipe, a young bright-eyed guy from Columbia. I will explain each of them in more detail over the coming blogs. Our tour guide was named Jade and she was perhaps the real value for money of the whole trip. She was a petite Chinese woman with a big smile and a friendly nature. She outlined the tour and what we were going to be getting up to.
We were taken for a group meal next, Chinese food was already one of my favourite foods but this cemented view…everything was DELICIOUS. As of this night as of many we sat around a table with a circular disk in the middle of an assortment of sweet and sour pork, beef with peppers and onions, lemon chicken, dumplings, chow mein, noodles, shrimp, the list was endless! It was definitely a highlight and something I will never get over. The only issue was that I never learned how to use chopsticks and I knew this was something I inevitably had to learn over the trip.
The waitress placed a pair of chopsticks in front of me without a knife and fork in sight. Jade was quick to offer me advice on the best way to handle chopsticks but I found it awkward and struggled to eat. If it was not for the soup spoon as my aid, I would have starved. In Shanghai the group gave me a present of kids chopsticks that had held the sticks together for you with a rubber toy, it was a funny and kind gesture by the group. Later on I adopted Felipe’s style and was in my element! By Yangshuo I declared myself a chopstick master and had a battle with Phil to see who could be the first to pick up a Wriggley’s gum wrapper…I lost but my chopstick ability was at an adequate level!
Jade, Felipe and myself went out afterwards to see the night markets and the whole of Beijing was TRANSFORMED. Neon signs of Mandarin symbols and Western style advertising of Nike added a futuristic glow to the town centre. I was in a whole new world. You could not believe the things offered at the night food stalls. There were snakes, squid, spiders, silkworms, crickets and even sheep penis and testicles. “CHEAP BALLS” cried the vendor! Felipe and I debated and finally agreed to sample some of the Chinese delicacy and picked up a scorpion each. You know that feeling you get while you wait in a rollercoaster queue? That’s what I was feeling as I stared down my deadly food. I ate it. It was not too bad in the end, like crispy chicken skin.